“It was very, very disturbing for me to see this,” she said. “And that was – that was the reality that I had to face… Title IX was a complete help for women in sports, but in my mind there were still disparities.”
For girls of color, certain women’s varsity sports, such as lacrosse, equestrian, rowing, or even softball, are ones they are unlikely to be exposed to in grade school. The reasons vary, although availability and cost can be major challenges for youth programs.
Thursday is the 50th anniversary of Title IX and in the years since the landmark law was passed, profound progress has been made in getting women and girls involved in sports. Women now make up 44% of all NCAA athletes, up from just 15% in 1971, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Nearly 3.5 million high school girls play sports, compared to less than 300,000 in 1972.
For black women and other women of color in sport, these gains have not been equally shared, reflecting the limitations of a policy that only addresses equity on the basis of sex and gender.
“We very often say that sport is a microcosm of society,” said Karen Issokson-Silver, vice president of research and education at the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Whenever systemic racism occurs in the wider society, in addition to gender discrimination, it is reflected in the ecosystem of sport.”
A first barrier to pursuing athletic opportunities in college and beyond is as simple as exposure to sports.
Natasha Watley, a black woman who is a two-time Olympic softball medalist, started playing when she was 5 years old. She didn’t have a black teammate until she was a teenager and said there were so few girls of color who played with her and went to varsity teams that she could count them on one hand.
After the UCLA graduate returned from the 2008 Olympics, Watley recalled talking to young girls about her experience.
“This young girl that I’ll never forget – a young little African American girl, she raises her hand and she says, ‘Ms. Natasha, your story sounds amazing, but what is softball? “Said Watley. “She had no idea what softball was.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in 2020 for non-Hispanic white families was $74,912, compared to $55,321 for Hispanic families and $45,870 for black families. Factors such as income contribute to a racial clustering phenomenon where women of color are overrepresented in sports like track and field that have a lower cost of entry, said Courtney L. Flowers, associate professor of sports management at Texas Southern University.
“Even middle-class families don’t send their children to schools that have access to an equestrian team,” she said. “We typically push African-American women into women’s basketball and athletics for those reasons.”
Inequalities spill over into leadership roles. While 34% of women’s team head coaches are white women, only 7% are women of color. Among athletic directors, only 4% are women of color compared to 20% for white women.
Candice Storey Lee, the first black woman to serve as athletic director at Vanderbilt University, said a one-size-fits-all policy like Title IX, without further action, could not bring fairness to the field.
“We know that a law alone does not change behaviors,” she said. “You need to have people committed at all levels to get the outcome you want. And so I wouldn’t blame Title IX for that, but I would say that we still have work to do in our own communities to ensure access for all.
These disparities in college athletic leadership and opportunity start early in life, said Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and senior education adviser at the National Women’s Law Center. A study released by the center found that 40% of public high schools nationwide are highly segregated, serving either 90% students of color or 90% white students.
In schools that primarily serve students of color, there are far fewer opportunities to play sports, and gender disparities are more pronounced – 40% of high schools that primarily serve students of color have large gaps in opportunities for girls in sports, compared to 16% of heavily white schools. The opportunity gap is the difference between the percentage of places on teams allocated to girls and the percentage of students who are girls, with differences of more than 10 points considered a significant opportunity gap.
Research shows that in addition to physical health, girls who play sports are more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem, stronger collaboration skills, and better academic achievement. But disparate access to athletics, through community centers and the rising cost of youth sports, makes schools a key place to engage young girls of color in athletics, Chaudhry said.
“All students are required to go to school, and it really is a place to provide opportunities that some students wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said. “Not everyone can afford to play sports outside of school…It’s really important to provide these opportunities equally at school. It is both important and it is the law.
Sloan Green, who in 1992 co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation, said expanding access for young girls of color, especially between pre-kindergarten and eighth grade, was crucial. In Temple, she expanded her camps and recruited from communities that had been neglected, including neighborhood children. Having role models who reflect girls of color and sharing their successes widely is also key to bringing girls onto the playing field, Sloan Green said.
In Southern California, Watley started the Natasha Watley Foundation to introduce girls from marginalized communities to softball, which serves approximately 1,000 girls each year. Beyond the cost, the main concern she hears from parents is that they aren’t sure the sport would accommodate their daughters. Watley said she wants young girls to know that sports can be a place where they can thrive, in college and beyond.
“More than anything, I wanted to make sure the girls were introduced to the game, that they understood that the game was for them, that it was a place for them,” she said. “There are opportunities far beyond their imagination that this game can provide.”
For more on the impact of Title IX, check out the full AP package: https://apnews.com/hub/title-ix Video timeline: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= NdgNI6BZpw0
Ma, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Brunt reported from Oklahoma City. AP Sportswriter Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report. Follow Ma on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15. Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP
The Associated Press’ reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.